Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
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In high school English classes, they teach students to write the “Five-Paragraph Essay.” Paragraph one introduces the topic and outlines the thesis; paragraphs two through four present evidence supporting the thesis; and paragraph five concludes by wrapping everything back up to prove that, yes, the writer has proven her thesis. Later, more advanced English classes allow a departure from this strict organization procedure, but all emphasize one key point: Start with the thesis. From there on out, how you choose to prove it is your own business. But always start with a thesis.
I’m going to horrify all my English teachers by starting without a thesis. I intend this as a discussion or exploration of an idea, rather than a forum for proving a point. My topic of discussion is twofold:
1. To discuss the meaning of animal sacrifices in the Old Testament and their subsequent disuse after Jesus arrived on the scene.
2. To explore the idea of salvation and what’s required for salvation.
Clearly, these two tie closely together, and the discussion of one inescapably leads to the other. Let’s start with animal sacrifices, and why I’ve been thinking about them lately. Our Bible study group just finished reading a book called Stranger on the Road to Emmaus, which I don’t recommend for anybody who’s been a Christian longer than 2 weeks. That said, the book did make some interesting, discussion-sparking statements, and one of them was (paraphrasing an idea mentioned several times throughout the book) that God requires blood to atone for sin, and that before Christ gave His blood for us, the animal sacrifices used as atonement that did not actually take away the person’s sins. When we read this, Ian and I disagreed with the author. We thought that animal sacrifice must actually have taken away the sacrificer’s sin, because otherwise how would the sacrificer be able to approach God? We thought that animal sacrifice was intended to cleanse a person of sin, to atone for the sin and make that person acceptable to God, whose very nature is such that He cannot abide sin. Sin and God cannot exist together, so animal sacrifice must make it so that sin is eradicated in a person who then can approach God.
Months after this animal sacrifice discussion, I read Hebrews 10:1 – 4, which says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Emphasis mine.) This got us thinking again about the meaning of animal sacrifice. I read it literally, that animal offerings did not bring about atonement for sin at all. Animal sacrifice, I hypothesized, was used as a reminder of sinfulness and foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice. Ian, on the other hand, interpreted the passage as saying that animal offerings did atone for individual sins, but didn’t remove the person’s sin nature. As a result, a person would need to continually keep offering animal sacrifices to be right with God because that person would continually sin. I agree that the sin nature would remain and that a person would never be right with God, but I disagree on the function of the animal sacrifice.
This is difficult. I consulted an online commentary by Ray C. Stedman, which had some interesting things to say about the Hebrews passage. First, he says, “In verses 1-4, the author builds on a point he has made earlier—that the annual repetition of sacrifices in the old order indicated their inability to actually remove sins. …These sacrifices could not remove sin because they were based only on the death of animals.” (Paragraph 1 under “A Willing Sacrifice”) Stedman went on to discuss the passage’s describing the animal sacrifices offered under the Law as a shadow of things to come: The ability to have sin truly and totally removed, which (according to Stedman) couldn’t be achieved by animal sacrifice. He says that animal sacrifice could never atone for sin because “These animal deaths were unwilling, even unconscious, sacrifices of a lower and quite different nature and therefore inadequate substitutes for humans made in the image of God. It is impossible, says the author, for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. Isaiah had quoted God long before saying, ‘I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats’ (Is 1:11). Nevertheless, despite this limitation, through the deaths of many animals, one unchanging message was being pounded out. Every sacrifice declared it and every offering told the same story. It was burned in blood and smoke into every listening heart. The essential point for a God-approved dealing with sin in one’s life was that a life be laid down. Every dying animal meant a life brought to an end. Sin was serious; it forfeited life. Unless the sin could actually be removed, the sinner must die. To save the sinner from such a fate, an equal and willing substitute must be found. Such a substitute the author now finds described in the words of Psalm 40.” (Paragraph 4 under “A Willing Sacrifice”)
Finally, Stedman says that the writer of Hebrews “acknowledges that though God authorized the animal sacrifices of the past, he did not delight in them. …Here the writer also declares that the death of Jesus, by fulfilling the will of the Father, completely replace the provision of animal deaths which had provided some degree of forgiveness before.” (Paragraph 6 under “A Willing Sacrifice”) It seems increasingly clear to me that animal sacrifice didn’t truly, fully cleanse the person giving the offering of his sin. They played some role in making people right with God, but couldn’t ever fully wipe away sin. Instead, maybe the act of sacrifice was a reminder of that sin and showed obedience to God, which is crucial to knowing Him. But then the problem is this: What happens to people who died before Christ ever lived? They wouldn’t even have had a chance even if they obeyed God’s Law to the best of their ability.
In the very following chapter, the writer of Hebrews lays out the “Hall of Faith,” describing many Old Testament—pre-Christ—people of faith and says in chapter 11, verse 38, “the world was not worthy of them.” However, it immediately adds in verses 39 and 40, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Emphasis mine) This passage makes me wonder if maybe Christ’s sacrifice covered
the sin of people who followed God before Christ ever died. God is outside of time, Christ dying once would cover the sin not only for everybody who came after His death, but also everybody who lived and loved God before Christ’s death. Those men and women of faith died not knowing Jesus, but obeying God and putting their trust in Him nevertheless.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Does this mean that a person has to profess faith specifically in Jesus Christ, call herself a Christian, go to church, read her Bible, do all the good Christian stuff? Or does this mean that anybody truly seeking God, who has a relationship with Him and who loves Him even without knowing Jesus’ name, can be saved thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice?
In his blog post called “Trash Talking: Musings on Universalism,” Richard Dahlstrom begins to poke at this idea. He quotes a passage from C. S. Lewis’ book The Last Battle. To summarize, in this portion of the book Lewis implies that a soldier following a different god (called Tash) was still one of Aslan’s children because the soldier had actually been seeking Aslan almost inadvertently by doing good (an anathema to followers of Tash) all his life. It ends with: “‘Beloved’ said the Glorious One [Aslan], ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly, for all find what they truly seek.’” –That, in fact, a person who never professed faith in Jesus could be saved without ever saying the Sinner’s Prayer. I extrapolate this and the John 14:6 passage to say that without Christ’s sacrifice, nobody could be saved. But since Christ died for our sins, maybe God can choose His children among those who He knows are seeking Him, whether they know it or not.
In Romans 1:20, Paul says “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” What are people expected to infer from the general knowledge of God’s invisible qualities? Can you actually know of Jesus and believe in the saving power of His death and resurrection without ever having heard the Good News? Do you need to specifically know Jesus and believe in His death and resurrection to be saved, or is knowing there is a loving God and trying to serve Him enough? God sees through all our pretentions and knows our true hearts; many who claim to follow Christ aren’t really Christians. Perhaps it’s possible that many who don’t claim to follow Christ really are Christians by living like Jesus. Our highest calling is to be a reflection, however poor, of God’s character—a “Little Christ” living in the world today. Can people who reflect God’s character without knowing it also be saved?
This is pretty intense stuff for Christians, and yet the church rarely treads anywhere near answering the simple question “What must a person do to be saved?” We make it so pat and simple sometimes, focusing on what Paul said in Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But as with everything, this isn’t a simple black and white matter, even if in the end you’re either saved or not saved.
This is the part where the English teacher would look for a neat wrap-up. She would want me to tie all these things together into one concise, clean summary that ties right back in to the opening thesis. So to all those English teachers: I’m sorry. I can’t wrap it up and present it in a neat little take-away point. I just don’t have all the answers this time.